Saturday, July 15, 2017

Build! Build! Build!: Grinnell One Hundred Years Ago

A visitor to Grinnell in 2017 could hardly miss the many construction projects now underway: the 196,000 square-feet humanities and social sciences building on the Grinnell College campus; the addition/expansion to St. Mary's Catholic Church; the remodeling of the former Junior High School into a hotel; the reconstruction of Central Park; and the reconstruction of downtown streets, to name just a few of the most obvious endeavors.

A century ago in Grinnell there was also construction everywhere, stimulating a March, 1917 article in the Des Moines Register, headlined "Grinnell Spends a Million in New Buildings." Of course, the word "million" does not have the same ring today that it had in 1917; translated into today's dollars, 1917 construction spending in Grinnell—for a town about half the size of today's Grinnell—amounted to almost $20 million of today's dollars, still only a fraction of the cost of construction now underway, but a big bump in early twentieth-century Grinnell all the same.
Des Moines Register, March 11, 1917, p. 36
Nourished by the high prices that grain commanded during the early years of the World War I, the escalating value of farmland, and the emergence of new technologies, 1917 Grinnell had accumulated unprecedented wealth, and this financial well-being bankrolled a remarkable building boom, surprisingly similar to the present frenzy of construction in town.

Despite this overt similarity, however, 1917 was also different from today. A much smaller, less populous town then than now, 1917 Grinnell was connected to the larger world mainly by railroads and newspapers rather than by the interstate highways or the internet; even the radio was still on the horizon in 1917 (newspapers announced the first "wireless station" in town in February). Grinnell College was smaller and less prosperous than it is today, and the town was more overtly religious—and more protestant. Although a recent local referendum had favored women's suffrage, Grinnell women still awaited enfranchisement that the Nineteenth Amendment would provide, and consumption of alcohol was illegal—in 1917 Grinnell Prohibition was in full swing, Iowa having legislated it four years before the 1920 national law. Perhaps most jarring of all the differences was the World War into which the United States had only recently been thrust (the U.S. formally declared war on Germany April 6, 1917), and that far-away war not only brought news of the world regularly to Grinnell's doorstep but also brought uniforms and military training to town, and called forth increasingly strident patriotism.

Sadly, Grinnell's prosperity and building boom did not last, and the 1920s brought contraction, farm foreclosures, bank failures, and social dissatisfaction that organizations like the Ku Klux Klan exploited. But that was later; in 1917 Grinnell's future looked very bright indeed, and that confidence powered a surprisingly robust round of construction that changed fundamentally the appearance of the town!
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The Des Moines newspaper report, published early in 1917, included several projects whose genesis properly relates to the previous year. For example, the photograph used to highlight the article depicts the new Grinnell Herald building on Fifth Avenue, completed in 1916 by the Bailey-Marsh Company to the design of Proudfoot, Bird and Rawson. Its cost estimated at about $40,000, the newspaper's new home featured entirely new press machinery, said to be the fastest then available; an elevator with which to move heavy loads between floors; a two-story vault for the most valuable records; and a series of skylights that admitted ambient light from the roof all the way to the raised basement. Perhaps most interesting was the role played by D. N. Mallory, an "efficiency expert" who helped produce what the newspaper shamelessly bragged was "the handsomest and most commodious newspaper home in Iowa for a town of 5,000 people" (Grinnell Herald, March 13, 1917).
Scarlet and Black, January 20, 1917, p. 1
Grinnell still had two newspapers in 1917, and the Herald's competitor, the Grinnell Register, also put up a fine new building just down the street at the corner of Fifth and Broad. Using the design of Ladehoff and Sohn, a short-lived Grinnell architectural firm responsible for several structures built in 1916, the Register's new building—"Register" emblazoned across the brick face of the upper story—was home to both the newspaper and its owner-editor, Charles K. Needham (1868-1956), who lived upstairs. But this building, too, was begun before 1917, as photographs from the new post office construction site across the street prove.
Grinnell Register, August 30, 1917, p. 1
Securing a new post office for Grinnell was the achievement of Congressman Nate Kendall (1868-1936), but local contributions of $6000 were necessary to add to the $15,000 that the U.S. Treasury provided to purchase the site of the former Norris Livery across Broad Street from the new Register building (visible in the background of a photograph looking west from the construction site).
Early Stage of Construction of Grinnell's US Post Office, 1916, looking west (Digital Grinnell)
Work began in autumn, 1916, but the doors of the new post office first swung open to the public September 21, 1917 for a welcoming reception. Weitz Construction Company of Des Moines erected the wire-finished brick structure (said to have cost $68,500), built to the Neo-Classical design of a government architect (Grinnell Herald, September 21, 1917, p. 1).

Local government also joined the building boom: although many Grinnell streets had been paved by 1917, as the town expanded new streets opened and some streets were widened. For example, a January newspaper article reported that Park Street north of Tenth Avenue, originally platted too narrowly, was doubled north to the Country Club. Elsewhere, city government decided to make use of the ashes and cinders generated at the water works and heating plant to improve the surface of the Hazelwood Cemetery drive and First Avenue beyond the tannery (Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, January 2, 1917).

Even bigger projects loomed, however. As many readers will know, today's Grinnell city government has embarked upon a very costly project of upgrading its waste water treatment plant. Coincidentally, in 1917 the city proudly opened its brand new sewage disposal plant. The Herald described the new facility as "the most comprehensive effort to handle sewage...in the state" (March 13, 1917). J. W. Turner Improvement Co. of Des Moines constructed the new facility southwest of town, and also had the contract to  install a series of water mains in Grinnell.
Grinnell Herald, March 13, 1917
Grinnell was also busy putting up a new school in the southern half of town. Marshalltown architects Harry Reimer and George Herlin provided the design of a "really modern, up-to-date school house," whose construction occupied much of the year 1917. Apparently parts of the building were opened to use that autumn, as an article in the Herald (September 11, 1917) that announced the beginning of the new school year identified a principal at the new school as well as teachers for kindergarten, second and third grades. The formal opening of Davis school, however, had to wait until September 6, 1918 when the public was invited to tour the school named after two long-time teachers, Misses Lizzie and Edna Davis. The newspaper described the school as a "three-story, fire-proof structure" whose terrazzo hallways and stairs were thought "sanitary and practically sound proof." The first floor was devoted to a "manual training room," while nine classrooms occupied the second and third stories. Translucent glass filled the upper half of large windows; movable desks—the latest classroom innovation—could be "changed to any position to suit the convenience of the child." The published description also lauded a "neatly-furnished rest room with a kitchenette" and a "white enamel finished room equipped with all first aid necessities" required by a nurse. "South Grinnell should certainly be proud of this excellent improvement," the newspaper concluded (Grinnell Herald, September 10, 1918).
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Local industry also marked some important new construction in 1917. In October the newspaper announced that the new building of the Dodge Tool Company would soon be open. The two-story factory (70' x 90') on south Main was under the direction of W. S.  Dodge, and was said to have engineered Billy Robinson's famous rotary engine. Evidently the firm did not prosper for long, however, as a 1920 Grinnell directory knows nothing about it.

The most costly and important industrial addition to town in 1917 was the new plant of the Iowa Light, Heat, and Power company, reported to have cost $250,000. At its official opening, May 14, 1917, Mayor White turned on a new, 500-horsepower Ball engine, which revolved "steadily and smoothly, like a happy giant at work." The mayor then started up its twin, and would have done the same to a third engine which had twice the power of the first two, but it was not yet fully operational. Guests then turned their attention to the big boilers and their automatic feed hoppers, all intended to increase and improve the provision of power to the town (Grinnell Herald, May 15, 1917).
Drawing of proposed new home for Iowa Light, Heat and Power (Grinnell Register, August 10, 1916)
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As in 2017, so also one hundred years ago, a significant proportion of new construction in Grinnell took place on the college campus. Indeed, Alumni Recitation Hall, at the center of today's new humanities and social studies complex, was itself brand new—in fact, not even fully finished—in 1917 when the first classes convened in that building.
Alumni Recitation Hall, 1917 (Scarlet and Black, September 24, 1917
The new three-story brick structure provided classrooms for English, German, classics, romance languages, psychology, education, applied Christianity, history, political science, economics, and business administration.  In addition to offices for some twenty-eight faculty, ARH featured a "social science laboratory" that was to be furnished with "all the reference books on these subjects," transferred here from the library. The auditorium, which embraced both the second and third stories at the rear of the building, was intended for important lectures, debates, and similar gatherings that required extra seating.
Architect's Drawing, Men's Dormitories, Grinnell College, 1917
Already in 1914 the college had embarked upon an aggressive building spree, committing to construction of new dormitories, beginning with the women's quad on south campus. In 1916 emphasis had shifted north to the new men's dormitories, the first of whose "cottages" opened to students in autumn, 1917. What the Scarlet and Black (September 26, 1917) pronounced "among the most artistic and complete" men's dormitories in the United States was organized as three- or four-room suites, each room including "a steel cot of tasteful design, a closet and lavatory"; showers and bath tubs were shared by residents of each floor. Each cottage or house also shared "an elaborate club room [each with a fireplace], which will be used for lounging and for parties." With completion of the men's dormitories in late 1917, almost overnight the college—the great majority of whose students had previously lived off-campus—became a residential campus with enormous implications for the college's educational aspirations (and also for the incomes of townsfolk who had previously rented space to students).

The men's dormitories provided yet another significant signpost to the twentieth century—labor troubles. In late April newspapers across the state reported "Near Rioting at Grinnell" (Des Moines Register, April 24, 1927, p. 3; see also Quad-City Times, April 24, 1917, p. 2), the consequence of strikes carried out by workers for the several firms taking part in the construction project. Bailey Marsh Construction, who had won the bid as general contractor, held out longest against worker protests about hours, wages, and recognition of unions. In April the Minneapolis company brought to Grinnell from Des Moines twenty Mexicans whom they had hired to replace strikers. When the new laborers appeared, strikers refused to let them onto the worksite, and succeeded in persuading the Mexicans not to help Bailey Marsh break the strike. In early May the company tried again, this time importing volunteers from Milwaukee. Rather than allowing strikers to hassle or persuade the newcomers, the company arranged to train the recruits onto the work site, past the strikers, on a specially-laid railroad spur. Apparently the tactic worked, as a May 16 article in the Quad-City Times announced that the strike was over. Management had conceded a nine-hour work day at 35 cents/hour, but the firm refused to recognize the union as the strikers had long insisted, so that, overall, the laborers emerged the loser.
Grinnell House, 1920s? (Digital Grinnell)
Yet another instance of college construction was the new president's house at Fifth and Park. Like other projects, Grinnell House, as it has come to be called, was authorized in 1916, the trustees awarding the design to Brainerd and Leeds of Boston (W. H. Brainerd was an 1883 graduate of Iowa College). Originally estimated to cost about $30,000, the new home for President Main occupied a large lot at the corner of Fifth and Park. Like much of the new construction then, Grinnell House was built of brick, and was intended as both a private residence for the president (whose large frame dictated the super-size bath tub still occupying space on the 2nd floor) as well as an official entertainment site. Construction was delayed several times in early 1917, so the first public reception here took place in June and the formal opening during autumn semester.
Scarlet and Black, December 8, 1917
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Of course, the college was not the only local institution committed to new building plans. One of the oldest institutions in town, the Congregational Church, in early January announced plans for a thorough remodeling of the north end of the "Old Stone Church" (Scarlet and Black, January 10, 1917, p. 1).  Initial plans called for "a comfortable parlor and rest room for ladies" as well as a "large club room for men and boys." A three-story addition was proposed to the east of the church, featuring a dining room and assembly hall on the first floor, classrooms on the second, and two large rooms "especially for the use of young people" on the third. But when bids came in higher than hoped, the church rejected all bidders and decided to reconsider the plan (Grinnell Herald, July 31, 1917). Elsewhere in town, however, it was full-speed ahead.
Quad-City Times, February 5, 1917
Grinnell's Masons decided to erect a new temple on the east side of Main Street. In early February newspapers announced that bids would soon be opened for construction of "an imposing three-story structure faced with grey brick and cream terra cotta." A lease for the first floor had already been let to J. W. Harpster's furniture and undertaking business; a lodge room would occupy most of the second floor, with two parlors stretching across the front of the building; a kitchen, dining room and serving room were planned for the third floor. Designed by Frank Wetherell, who was architect for many buildings in central and southern Iowa, the new Masons' home went up quickly.
Cornerstone at foot of stairs of Grinnell's Masonic Temple, 1917
In July masons from all over the state converged on Grinnell to dedicate the new structure and lay the cornerstone. As often happens on such occasions, a small box of mementoes was installed within the cornerstone, preserving recent copies of both the Grinnell Herald and the Grinnell Register, a copy of the two Des Moines newspapers, several newly-minted coins, postcard views of Grinnell, a history of early Grinnell, and a list of lodge members (Grinnell Herald, July 27, 1917).
New Plumbing Showroom of A. Stahl, Fifth Avenue (Grinnell Register, August 30, 1917)
Several more modest commercial buildings also arose downtown in 1917. Adjacent to the west side of the Herald on Fifth Avenue August Stahl erected a one-story brick building with a plate-glass front for his new plumbing and heating store. A review in the Grinnell Register (August 30, 1917) made much of the tasteful display of plumbing products, and noted that the proprietor was "Especially proud of the rest room he has had fitted up for the convenience of the ladies... no matter whether customers of his store or not."
Grinnell Register, May 10, 1917
Immediately to the west A. C. Dickerson installed a Willard Storage Battery Service Station. Described as "well-built of brick" and "handsomely furnished," the "light, airy and convenient" facility accommodated seven or eight cars at a time, presumably entering from the alley, since up front was "a smaller room which is being handsomely fitted up as an office" (Grinnell Herald, August 10, 1917).
White Star Filling Station, Fifth and Main, 1917 (Digital Grinnell)
Just to the west of the new Willard Battery Station was the White Star Filling Station, which opened on the northeast corner of Main and Fifth in January, 1917. Highlighted by brick columns, each of which was topped by a lighted ball that advertised the gasoline and oil, the attractive brick building straddled the corner lot on an angle, allowing vehicles to enter from Fifth Avenue and exit onto Main Street. Flower gardens filled the triangle that separated the station from the corner. Later in 1917 across the street, on the northwest corner of the intersection, arose another filling station, this one belonging to Standard Oil. According to the Grinnell Herald report (May 8, 1917), the building was to be located on the northwest corner of the lot; the face of the building would use brick for the bottom three feet, above which stucco would cover steel lath. The newspaper promised a "25-foot canopy...in front of the building proper with four drop lights." In addition, five post lights, each six feet high, would match the design of the main building. Like its competitor across Main Street, the Standard station would feature a diagonal cement driveway from Fifth, emptying onto Main. Gasoline pumps would be sufficient to accommodate four automobiles at a time. All this was expected to cost something less than $4000.
J. H Skeels Building, 1917 (Grinnell Herald, September 14, 1917, p. 1)
Just across the street and around the corner yet another brick building went up in 1917, and became home to J. H. Skeels and his blacksmithing business. To the rear of the first floor, and reachable also by a door opening onto Fifth Avenue, customers could enter a wood shop. Two apartments occupied the second floor, although living there might have required courage. According to the Herald (September 7, 1917), "Two power drills, roller disc sharpener, grinding machine and three forges" operated in the blacksmith's section, and similar machinery attached to the wood shop, all powered by electricity. A rectangular canopy almost the full length of the Main Street storefront hung by chains and covered the sidewalk.
Strand Theatre, 1917 (Grinnell Register, January 25, 1917)
Across Main Street two more new buildings took shape in 1916 and opened in 1917. The Strand Theater came from the design table of N. Wiltamuth & Son, architects who were also responsible for several Grinnell homes. The Grinnell Register (January 25, 1917, p. 2) thought the theater "attractive and imposing." Like other newly-built downtown businesses, the Strand sported a wire-cut brick face, but hollow clay tile and steel beams reinforced the structure. A mansard roof of green, glazed Spanish tile overlooked a canopy that was "bordered with panels of art glass set in white metal" and was suspended by chains over the entrance. Immediately to the north, Frank Harding opened the new building of Grinnell Granite and Marble Works. With a 25-foot front, the two-story building stretched 122 feet deep, the front displaying white enamel brick trimmed with red granite. The owner's name, cut out of red granite, served to identify the business. Most of the first floor was devoted to Harding's business, but a Goodyear Shoe Repair shop occupied one room there as well. As with Skeels's building, the second floor was divided into apartments—seven here—each with a built-in refrigerator, gas range, and "instantaneous water heater." Skylights helped brighten the interiors, all this making "the best monument building west of the Mississippi" (Grinnell Herald, September 7, 1917). 
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Daily Iowan, October 20, 1917, p. 1
Despite all the ways in which 1917 corresponds to similar developments in 2017, surely one piece of 1917 news beggars the imagination of a 2017 Grinnellian: on October 20, 1917 the Grinnell College football team defeated the University of Iowa 10-0. Of course, the game of football itself was played differently back then, with the starting lineup playing both sides of the ball rather than having special offensive and defensive units; drop-kicks (rather than employing holders as is now universally done) were common, and executed by one of the backs rather than use a kicker specialist. All the same, Grinnell was dizzy with the thrill of victory, and the Grinnell Register (October 22, 1917) reported that, when the special train that bore Grinnell fans to Iowa City returned home, there was much celebration, including a parade and a bonfire on Ward Field.
Scarlet and Black, April 21, 1917
In other ways, too, 1917 may be distinguished from our own Grinnell. For instance, the College of today enrolls more than 1600 students, but when classes convened in September, 1917 the college proper enrolled a total of 728 students (just over 900 if including other programs), a student population described as the "largest in Grinnell's history." Perhaps admissions that year were helped by the fact that in the preceding March the college faculty had finally approved students' petitions to permit dancing on campus; six dances were scheduled for the 1917-1918 academic year (Quad-City Times, March 9, 1917, p. 17). American involvement in World War I also brought a change to campus as students first engaged in voluntary military drills, and then began to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces. As a result, military uniforms became a common sight around town.

And yet there was in 1917, as in 2017, sufficient optimism and financial well-being to stimulate a surprisingly robust round of new construction—both public and private. Today many of the buildings newly erected a century ago remain in use, if sometimes remodeled and repurposed. We may hope, therefore, that the next century will prove equally hospitable to the structures whose construction is presently underway.





1 comment:

  1. Great article Dan. I'm curious about the Willard Battery, White Star and Standard Oil buildings. If I understand correctly the White Star station was where the Plate offices are now. But where was Willard Battery? The brick building still there on the northeast corner of 5th and Main? But I can't figure out where the Standard Oil station was. So much building around that time and so great to have the context you've provided. Always great to see what you come up with!

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